Elena Balakireva: «In America handling is business, in Asia – business and ambitions, and only a Russian breeder can take a bank credit to go to a dog show»
Elena, how long have you been in working with dogs?
Almost all my conscious life. I was a participant of Junior Dog Breeders’ Club that was functioning in USSSR years. In the 8th form I passed through special courses and got a certificate of the Instructor of dog breeding, and after I finished school I entered the zoo-engineering faculty and at the same time was finishing courses for RKF experts. So to say, almost all my conscious life was connected to cynology although no one in my family was working with dogs.
And for how long have you been into handling?
In Russia handling as it is had been forming before my eyes, as I was a participant of dog shows in the Soviet Union times. These were many hours of rings, dogs were shown on tarpaulin leashes and handlers wore sporting costumes. Of course, thing were gradually changing.
In 1988 a Bull Terrier appeared in my house and I was presented a video tape from a dog show (later I understood that this was a video from Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show), which turn upside-down all my ideas of how a dog show be presented in a ring. I sewed my first dog lead using a lace from my skate and a ring on which we hand up our carpets.
I took a school chalk and whitened my dogs’ nose, I rubbed into my dogs’ skin a mixture of calendula and vinegar to make it shinier and on this white lace we entered the show ring. Everybody was looking at us, as if we were some rare animals in a zoo. At that show the expert was from Sweden and he said that my dog was the only one that was presented in a ring like it should be. And from that very moment I “fell into” handling.
There were no places to study, there was no Internet at that time, no books and, actually, the real break through was when the World Wide Web appeared and I started travelling abroad to visit dog shows. All this happened after the 2000-s when it became possible to watch the work of handlers, to ask them questions and to take lessons.
Who is setting the tone for handling today: England, USA or Europe?
Definitely not English people, because English handling is pretty specific. The tradition of Cruft’s differs completely from those in Russia: there are many breeders whose age is above average. You can see that even in Best in Show. And only now handlers (in their common sense) are coming into the English show ring and starting to win.
American handling is at top level and this is a completely different ideological system, they have another relationship between expert, exponent and owner. This is a more professional environment, with contracts and agreements, with strictly defined rights and duties.
Asian handling (its better part) is closely related to American school but multiplied by meticulousness: if it said that you have to wash your dogs mustaches twice a day then a handler will do it whatever happens. But they see their animals as instruments not friends.
In my ideology a Russian-European system represents an attitude to a dog as to a friend and companion, first of all, and only on second thought as to a show instrument. Generally speaking, in America handling is business and nothing personal, in Asia – business and ambitions, and only a Russian breeder can take a bank credit to go to a dog show.
What characteristics and skills a Junior Handler must have to become successful?
First of all, a Junior Handler must love dogs and not himself / herself in cynology. Unfortunately, we have today a lot of young people who don’t like dog in general. They love to win, to be the first, to demonstrate themselves and gain money for this.
Regrettably, the time when children just wanted to be besides a dog and to hold a dogs’ lead has gone. As a rule these are the kids of dog owners or breeders for whom handling and working with a dog is simply a lifestyle. Sadly enough, in Russia nowadays came a hole new generation of handlers who don’t have their own dogs and, most likely, will never have one. They don’t like dogs, and handling for them is just work, business and nothing more.
At what age a future Junior Handler should start training and working with a dog?
If there is a dog at home then a child learns to communicate with it from the very beginning. In this case many skills and technics of dog-child communication a kid learns just in process of living with this dog. I think that serious training for handling should start not earlier than when a child turns 9 years old. The younger family member can visit dog shows with parents, can help, but I wouldn’t advise to make a professional and a constant helper out of your child from a very young age. Did you know that many children of professional dog breeders don’t like dogs and are not into them because when they were young they were treated like a free working source for cleaning after a dog and for other help?
The most passionate kennel owners, like me, are those who were not allowed to have a dog when they were kids and when they finally grew up they realized their childhood wishes. Good professional handlers develop out of children who lived in cynological families where for a child communication with a dog is one of the most pleasant things in the world. And if a parent lets this child to go with a dog into the ring, to prepare it for the show, this must be perceived as a prize but not duty. Normally, such kids feel the dog perfectly. This child won’t drag the dog after him in a ring as sometimes we see in a competition “Child and Dog” (talking about dog shows seen in Russia - petolog remark), which makes a depressive impression because some people don’t remember that a dog is an alive creature with its own emotions, inner world, fears and wishes.
I am happy that today the judging policy changed a lot into a “Greenpeace” direction. Experts are very critical when things come to dog abuse in a ring (for example, taking dog by a tale). Nowadays handling became very gentle and is aimed to develop partnership with a dog. But if a Japanese expert won’t notice if you lift your dog up by a dog lead and a tail, the Scandinavian expert in the very same situation and with high probability will disqualify you.
Are there stages of handlers’ development?
In Russia we don’t have any gradations or professional associations for handlers. A handler remains as such when he/she continues to study and develop. When a handler decides that this is enough and he/she doesn’t want any new knowledge, then a professional development is over. There are people who learned a few techniques 10 year ago and continue to work in the same manner, I would call them “craftsmen”.
Is it possible for a handler as a result of the development process to become, for example, a breeder or an expert?
In general, it is impossible to combine handling and judging. First of all, an expert can enter the ring only with his own dogs and cannot go with those he doesn’t own. As a rule, the most challenging for exponent judges come out of former handlers because they know exactly what you do in a ring to conceal you dogs’ faults. Successful breeders, whose dogs win regularly on dog shows, also become very interesting experts.
For example, why would you think many Russian breeders prefer to show their young dogs to one of the most successful dog breeders (talking about Revaz Khomasuridze – petolog remark)? Because a person reached the stability among his dogs’ population, and not only one of his dogs is a “star”, but the hole “bunch” is of a high quality.
Sometimes it happens that an expert in a ring is not interested in dogs entering, he just doing his work. Unfortunately, there are people among experts, as well as among handlers, for whom dogs are only business.
If a dog doesn’t want to enter the ring or to walk there properly, is there anything the owner can do?
Of course, we can change a dogs’ behavior, if our pet is mentally healthy. If we are talking about a normal dog with a stable nervous system and a negative ring experience, we can change it. This is pretty laborious and professional task because we change the animals’ perception. Dogs can extrapolate very well and therefore they understand what will come next.
For example, if in a dogs’ mind the ring is something that is boring, not interesting, sometimes painful and unpleasant, we can change this stereotype. We can explain our dog that it is in fact fun and fascinating.
How do handlers conceal the dogs’ faults in the ring?
Besides grooming (if it is a “fluffy” dog), the great impression on an expert makes the dog that shows happiness in a ring: when a dog is positive, feels itself comfortable and good. This very impression, this emotion of happiness is translated from the dog to the expert. So to say, your dog must be perfectly groomed and happy – these are two main components that make half of you victory.
The other important thing is the demonstration angle of your dog. For example, today in many breeds long necks and very long hind legs with strongly pronounced angles are in fashion. All this looks very beautiful when a dogs’ is in a side view stand. But when a dog is still developing it looks flat from the front view and almost always has close elbows and narrow chest. So, if we look at dog strictly from a side view or if its front part is put a little bit aside experts’ point of view, this dog still look as pretty as a picture. But when we start looking at the dog from a front view it seems like something is missing. Therefore, the task of the handler is to put the dog into the stand in such a way that an expert will see it from the most attractive angle. Of course, the judge will see your dog from the front, but most of the time he will look at it from its best point.
In the course of the dogs’ developing the attractive viewpoint must be corrected. In time the same dog will grow wider, will gain weight, maybe will deliver puppies, its back will sink a bit and the topline won’t be so perfect, but it will have a beautiful front and a splendid low jaw. When all this happens we will start presenting our dog in a new manner, showing its front and head.
Or, for example, in some breed the front is in general not good as every breed has its problems: close elbows, narrow chest etc. The handlers’ aim is to demonstrate all the dogs’ qualities and pay the experts’ attention on a dogs’ strong points. So to say, one of the important skills of the handler is to know the breeds’ standard perfectly.
Does a successful handler has to be a professional groomer?
There are breeds that must be trimmed. For example, for the Poodle it is almost impossible to win without perfect grooming. A dog can be trimmed by a professional groomer, and final preparation can do the handler. There is no doubt that a handler must be able to prepare hair of the dog he is presenting in a ring. Trimming skills are not a must and even not needed, as a top grooming (the level of World Dog Show) is the professionals groomers’ work. The handlers’ task is to prepare a dog properly (do the final grooming before the ring) and to show a dog perfectly.
Are there any documents, official rules, recommendations that regulate handlers’ work?
In Russia there is no such a profession as the handler. So, in fact, we are “not existing”. There are no professional associations, like, for example, groomers have. The only thing we have is our reputation: first you work on your reputation, and then it works on you.
What do you think about Happy Legs?
All these instruments like Happy Legs, Happy Ball, running track are great, but knowledge is required to use them. I conducted already more than 170 seminars in Russia and abroad and I always say at my master classes “Don’t use Happy legs”.
First of all, there is no thing you can do with this “gadget” that you cannot do without it. Secondly, if you don’t know how to use it you can do harm to your dog. So, if a person doesn’t understand how it is working (and there are not many dog owners who have a thorough understanding), is in a rush and wants to achieve quick results, he can injure the dog.
You understand the dog psychology very well. Did you acquire that knowledge by practice or is it a result of some academic courses?
I cannot say that my zoo technical education helped me a lot. Today with all the opportunities the Internet gives us, to study anatomy, muscle system you just need to have computer and Internet connection. I travel all over Russia and when I come to a city where people tell me that they are living in small city and don’t have opportunity to get information I cannot understand it and always answer them, “But you have the Internet”.
Earlier, before the World Wide Web era we had to invent things ourselves and that was difficult. An the sad thing was that after you managed to solve a problem you found out that it had been already solved somewhere before you.
Nowadays, there are tones of information, specialized literature and video in the Internet, but at the same time nothing can substitute the practical experience with a dog. Of course, there are a lot of theory in cynology, but many things you can understand only as a result of an every day work with dogs and through your victories and defeats. When a person comes to me with saying “You see, I have such a difficult dog”. I answer, “Be happy”. Because there are dogs (although, they are met very rare) with which you don’t have to do anything. This dog does everything itself: it runs fantastically, it stand perfectly, you just need to put a number on anyone and let this dog into the ring. If such a temperament is combined with a great exterior then this is a “star”. But it happens almost never.
When a “complicated” dog comes to you in terms of character, exterior, intellect you have to think a lot, to study literature and you get a lot of knowledge. Yes, it is a hard work, but it is happiness also, because you professional level grows. When you work in row with several “simple” dogs, with which training goes easily, you go relax and your brain stops working.
In my work it is not my basic zoo technical education that helps, but expert courses that I passed through. I even started judging but soon I understood that for it is more interesting for me to be “outside”, than “inside”. Besides, only an expert with a serious reputation can say his independent opinion and before you gain this reputation you have to play according to rules other offer you.